Tamil Nadu (TN) is experiencing rising temperatures; and the power cuts that the state is experiencing, are making matters much worse. The frequency of power cuts raises various concerns, the primary one being whether a consumer even has a right to an uninterrupted supply of power. The Electricity (Rights of Consumers) Rules, 2020 strive to establish that consumers have the right to get reliable services and quality electricity. These Rules have been passed under section 176(2)(z) Power of Central Government to make rules of the Electricity Act, 2003. These rules will benefit around 30 crore consumers (both current and prospective) in the country.
The primary objective of this legislation is to make distribution companies (DISCOM) more consumer-friendly; these rules simplify and digitise various cumbersome processes like applying or modifying a connection, payment of bills, installation of smart meters, reliability of supply, etc. Let us discuss some of the noteworthy features of these rules:
Rights and obligations
Rule 3 makes it the duty of every distribution licensee to supply electricity on request. It also provides the right of a consumer to have minimum standards of service for the supply of electricity from the distribution licensee. In TN the Tamil Nadu Electricity Regulatory Commission (TNERC) has already passed the Tamil Nadu Electricity Distribution Standards of Performance Regulations, 2004.
Release of new connection and modification in an existing connection
Rule 4 provides that the applicant shall have an option to submit an application form in hard copy form or electronic means such as online through a web portal or mobile app of the distribution licensee (Consumers in TN can apply at Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation; TANGEDCO website or the mobile app). Information on the procedure to apply shall be available online as well as in offices. The rule states that the distribution licensee must create an application tracking mechanism based on the unique registration number which will be provided on submission of the application.
Rule 5 states that every connection shall be given with a meter and such meter shall be the smart prepayment meter or pre-payment meter. The rule also states that if the meter is installed outside the consumer’s premises, distribution licensee shall be responsible for the safe custody of the meter, and if the same is installed within the consumer’s premises, the consumer shall be responsible for the safe custody of the meter.
Rule 6 provides that the distribution licensee shall intimate the consumer about despatch of electricity bill through SMS or email, or by both. The bill must be uploaded on the licensee's website on the day of generation itself.
Rule 7 ensures that the consumer shall have the option to pay bills online or offline. Additionally, this rule also states that a bill amount of more than one thousand rupees or an amount specified by the Commission must be paid online, and a suitable incentive or rebate for this shall be given by the Commission.
Reliability of supply
Rule 10 states that distribution licensees shall supply 24x7 power to all consumers. However, the Commission may specify lower hours of supply for some categories of consumers like agriculture. In Tamil Nadu, under Clause 21 of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Distribution Standards of Performance Regulations(DSOP), 2004, when there is an interruption of supply, the consumer is entitled to a compensation of Rs.50/- for every six hours (or part thereof) of delay in restoration of supply subject to a maximum of Rs.2000/-.
It is interesting to note that this rule also recommends putting in place an automated mechanism to monitor and restore power outages.
Under Rule 2 (m) “Prosumer” means a person who consumes electricity from the grid and can also inject electricity into the grid for distribution licensee, using the same point of supply. The term prosumers is used because they are parties who produce as well as consume.
In simple terms, it can be understood as a person who has set up a renewable energy generating unit like a rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) system. Rule 10 states that prosumers will have consumer status and enjoy the same rights as the general consumer. It further proposes net metering for loads of up to ten kW and gross metering for loads above ten kW.
Call Centre for Consumer Services
Rule 14 makes it a duty of the distribution licensee to establish a centralised 24x7 toll-free call centre, for customer service.
Grievance redressal mechanism
Under Rule 15 Consumer Grievance Redressal Forum (CGRF) must be established at different levels to cater to the sub-division, division, circle, etc. The forum will now include four (previously one) consumer and prosumer representatives. Any grievance should be resolved within 45 days from the date of receipt of such grievances.
Through Rule 16, it is the responsibility of the distribution licensee to provide all services such as application submission, payment of bills, etc., to senior citizens at their doorsteps. In addition to this, the rule also states that the details of scheduled power outages shall be informed to the consumers via SMS, or other electronic means. Even information on restoration must be provided to the consumer upon the occurrence of an unplanned power cut. Furthermore, under this rule, the distribution licensee should bring awareness to consumer rights.
While this legislation is a welcome step forward, there are some gaps that have to be addressed, here are some recommendations for the rules:
Under Rule 4, in addition to digitising the application process, the Discoms have to publish information such as a quarterly report to the public. Along with this, public access to a list of pending applications, time taken to provide connections, etc., will monumentally increase transparency as well as accountability.
Rule 6 discusses billing in detail. It is suggested that the bill should be clear and informative so that there is improved information disclosure and greater public participation. CAG, in partnership with Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), and supported by Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation has conducted a study on using the electricity bill as an enabling mechanism to improve information disclosure and promote greater public participation in the electricity sector; it also provides a bill format. A similar detailed bill format may be given under these rules for all the distribution licensees to follow.
It is also vital to constitute an enforcement mechanism for auto compensation that is mandated under Rule 13. There should be separate compensation for failure to auto-compensate and delay in paying compensation. Going through compensatory mechanisms enforced in other nations can give us a better outlook:
The UK has a great compensation scheme wherein the consumer should not need to contact their energy operator to receive compensation. The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), in the USA, offers a Safety Net program through which automatic monetary compensation is given to customers for any inconvenience such as power cuts during severe weather events. Australia follows a similar set up which also provides specific compensation for momentary outages (less than one minute) and outages on major event days. A ‘major event day’ is an industry term used to indicate abnormal performance in supply reliability due to events outside the control of the distributor such as extreme weather and storms. The ‘compensation for power cut' policy has been implemented in Chattisgarh, The power distribution company will have to pay compensation at the rate of Rs 5/- per hour up to 12 hours & Rs lO/- per hour beyond that in case of failure to supply power. A similar scheme can also be added to these rules.
Rule 14 has launched a 24x7 toll-free call centre, for customer service. Creating a physical consumer help desk or employing decentralised Customer Relationship Managers (CRMs) in the local distribution circle can improve accessibility for consumers who have connectivity issues or are unable to understand the procedures. These counters must also assist consumers in filing applications, tracking applications, reporting grievances, etc.
Services such as application submission, payment of bills, etc., are provided to senior citizens at their doorsteps via Rule 16; the same must be extended to persons with disabilities.
It is important to track the implementation of these rules by the distribution licensee; there is no provision to do this at present. One way to begin is with the Integrated Rating of State Power Distribution Utilities by including “implementation of consumer rules” as a factor under the framework approved by the Ministry of Power. The rating system which highlights their consumer-friendliness will also evoke a sense of responsibility towards consumers. Tracking progress can help ensure that these rights are available to all consumers and will be conducive to proposing amendments.
Every citizen has a right to electricity. The Honourable Madras High court in fact has ruled that denial of power supply will amount to a violation of human rights. A similar stance was taken regarding the right to electricity by the High courts of Kerala, Calcutta and Himachal Pradesh. In order to exercise this right, citizens must have awareness of these rights along with the modes to implement the same. The codification of the Rights of Consumers in the electricity sector is a laudable step forward by the Government of India. Nevertheless, this is only the first step- it is not the limit but the low hanging fruit of consumer rights within the electricity sector.